Rolling Stones in Milan - First Concert

Keith Richards’ five greatest guitar riffs

On the day The Rolling Stones’ legendary guitarist Keith Richards celebrates his 80th birthday, we’re celebrating his greatest guitar riffs.

In Wayne’s World 2, the titular Wayne discovers veteran roadie Del Preston hanging upside down from a lampshade as he snoozes, who retorts that this method of sleep was learned from Keith Richards after he toured with The Rolling Stones: “This may be the reason why Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons.” Guessing there’s a shred of truth in it.

Given his well-documented and oft-mythologised relationship with various substances throughout his lifetime in music, there are no doubt plenty of Stones’ fans who believed Keith would never make it to the hallowed age of 80. Well, for a musician who has consistently rebelled against rules and regulations has rebelled once more by not dying before he got old. 

Aside from his antics with sex and drugs, Richards also did rock ‘n’ roll like no other. As one half of ‘The Glimmer Twins’ with Mick Jagger, their songwriting partnership shaped rock music as we know it. But Keef also conjured some of the most recognisable guitar riffs of all time. Consistently overlooked as a guitar great for not being a virtuoso of the instrument in the typical sense, his fretwork is downright underrated, especially when his riffs are etched into the upper echelons of rock ‘n’ roll music. Even his peers refer to him as ‘The Human Riff’ for goodness sake.

So on the day Keith Richards celebrates becoming an octogenarian, let’s celebrate his greatest five guitar riffs, in no particular order:

‘Start Me Up’

Likely not a favourite for the purists, but ‘Start Me Up’ was Keef at his catchiest. There’s a valid reason why The Rolling Stones have kicked off literally 90% of their shows with it since 1981. But Richards himself is not actually a huge fan, likely because the iteration we hear isn’t what he intended.

“I was convinced that [‘Start Me Up’] was a reggae song. Everybody else was convinced of that. ‘It’s reggae, man’,” he told Guitar World in a 2020 interview. “We did forty five takes like that. But then on a break, I just played that guitar riff, not even really thinking much about it; we did a take rocking away and then went back to work and did another fifteen reggae takes. Five years later, Mick discovered that one rock take in the middle of the tape and realised how good it was.”

‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’

Returning to raw and rattling rock ‘n’ roll after psychedelic experimentation with Their Majesties Satanic Request, the Stones’ blossomed into the louche rock gods we know and love thanks to Richards’ work on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Weirdly enough however, it was inspired by his gardener in the early hours of a sesh with Jagger. 

“The lyrics came from a grey dawn at Redlands,” Richards recalled in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. “Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside, and there was the sound of these boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer. It woke Mick up. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.’ I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase ‘Jumping Jack.’ Mick said, ‘Flash,’ and suddenly we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it. You jump on the riff and it plays you. Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel.”

‘The Last Time’

In 1965, The Rolling Stones were regarded as nothing more than a blues cover band – The Beatles even gifted them ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ – as they hadn’t self-penned any tracks. Until ‘The Last Time’ in 1965, that is, and it was transformative for the songwriting cohesion between Jagger and Richards. The zippy number hinges on Richards’ riff however, providing the driving force by playing throughout its 3:41 minutes, a unique device for a pop song at the time. 

“We didn’t find it difficult to write pop songs, but it was VERY difficult – and I think Mick will agree – to write one for the Stones,” Keith wrote in 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones. “‘The Last Time’ was kind of a bridge into thinking about writing for the Stones. It gave us a level of confidence; a pathway of how to do it. And once we had done that we were in the game. There was no mercy, because then we had to come up with the next one. We had entered a race without even knowing it.”

‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’

No doubt the sexiest, sweatiest guitar riff Richards ever mustered, with ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, you can envisage a cocaine deal going down in the recording studio whilst Keef was caressing his fretboard. Jagger’s blatant lyrical drug references in “cocaine eyes” and “speed-freak jive” are befitting. Though the track progresses into a Santana-esque jam after the initial ignition – with Mick Taylor taking up lead guitarist duties – it’s Richards’ guitar part that brings the heat.

And it came to him effortlessly: “On that song, my fingers just landed in the right place, and I discovered a few things about that [five-string, open G] tuning that I’d never been aware of,” Keith told Guitar World in 2020. “I think I realised that even as I was cutting the track.”

‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

It’s hands-down one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. It’s instantly recognisable. We all know, we all love it. We’ve all attempted it on the guitar. It was The Rolling Stones song which put them on a par with Liverpudlian rivals The Beatles, and it was Richards’ handiwork which propelled ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ into the mainstream consciousness and to the top of various global charts, significantly in the UK and the US. 
Though, typically, Keef didn’t envisage his fretwork would make such an indelible impact: “When I wrote the song, I didn’t think of that particular riff as the big guitar riff,” he told Guitar World. That all fell into place at RCA [recording studio in Los Angeles.] when Gibson dumped on me one of those first Fuzz-Tone pedals. I actually thought of that guitar line as a horn riff. The way Otis Redding ended up doing it is probably closer to my original conception for the song. It’s an obvious horn riff. At least Otis got it right. Our version was a demo for Otis.”

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